Houston GOP Debate Could Be Make-Or-Break Night for Cruz’s Presidential Hopes

Tonight’s event will give Texas’ junior senator one last chance to close the gap with Donald Trump before March 1, Super Tuesday, when GOP voters in 12 states select delegates.

By Andrew SchneiderFebruary 25, 2016 9:30 am, , , ,

This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media

The countdown to the University of Houston’s first presidential debate can be measured in hours. It will be the last chance for voters to hear from the remaining five GOP candidates before Super Tuesday. Workers from debate co-sponsors Telemundo and CNN have been on the main UH campus for the past two days, assembling stages and wiring up broadcast compounds. Satellite trucks are already in place to beam the event worldwide.

Richard Murray heads the Survey Research Institute at the university’s Hobby Center for Public Policy. He says the stakes Thursday night are especially high for Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

“Clearly, this is his hometown,” Murray says. “He lives in Houston. This is his home state. We’ve got 155 delegates that are going to be apportioned out next Tuesday, and he needs a strong debate performance to set the table to finish this race up in Texas. Win the state and win a whole bunch of delegates.”

Cruz will take the stage with a boost from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who formally endorsed the senator in a video released on YouTube Wednesday. Abbott then stumped for Cruz in person, speaking at a factory in North Houston.

“I wanted to be with you in Houston, Texas today for one reason,” Abbott said. “The United States of America is at a crossroads, and we need a president who will lead us down the right path.”

Still Cruz is coming into the debate as an underdog. He’s lost three straight contests to Donald Trump. This past weekend, Cruz wound up firing his communications director, Rick Tyler, over charges Tyler had doctored a video of Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Bob Stein teaches political science at Rice University. He and Richard Murray just conducted a poll of likely Texas Republican voters, on behalf of Houston Public Media and the Hobby Center, where Stein is a research associate.

“This has not been a good week for him in terms of this issue of trustworthiness,” Stein says, “and if almost 35 percent of the Republican primary voters in Texas tell us this is the trait they want, sharing values won’t trump that, no pun intended here.”

The poll finds that Cruz holds a comfortable lead over Trump and Rubio in Texas. Still, Cruz will need to win a lot more than just his home state in order to break Trump’s momentum. The billionaire now holds a 4-to-1 lead in the GOP delegate count, with the two senators tied for second. The stage at Moores Opera House could make the difference between a revival and a swan song for Cruz’s presidential campaign.